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September 23, 2008

More thoughts on Cleveland critic's fate

The reaction to the news from Ohio last week -- that the chief music critic in town, Don Rosenberg of the Plain Dealer, has been taken off his prime music beat, the Cleveland Orchestra -- continues to reverberate.

In Don's view, Cleveland Orchestra music director Franz Welser-Most is not entirely worthy of leading one of the world's greatest music institutions. It's a view you can hear expressed by other critics. But even if Don were the only person in the universe who ever sounded a discouraging note about Welser-Most, he would remain well within his rights, and obligations, as a critic. Our job is not to echo the enthusiam of the audience or the board of directors or the musicians themselves. That's what claques are for.

Naturally, my colleagues in the ever-dwindling circle of music critics have a particularly strong feeling about this, for it cuts all too close to home and raises troubling issues about what we try to do for a living, and what newspapers and musicians expect from us. Members of the profession weighing in on this unfortunate business include Steve Smith, Tim ManganSarah Bryan Miller, Geoff Edgers, Clarke BustardJanelle Gelfand, Andrew Patner, and David Stabler. (The indispensible Opera Chic has also had something to say.)

It's one thing to bring down a critic who is demonstrably uninformed, or, as they say on Perry Mason, "incompetent, irrelevant and immaterial." Not to mention unethical (I owe my last two newspaper jobs to guys who crossed that line and were fired). But it is quite another ...

to target a critic expressing informed opinions. I've been struck by the accusation made by some Welser-Most supporters placing comments on my original blog about Don; they consider him just too biased, someone with a personal ax to grind. I wonder how many op-ed writers discussing a certain president have just been grinding personal axes for the past seven years, rather than simply expressing honest, deep differences with his decisions and qualifications.

One thing this sorry episode has done is trigger lots of memories. Most of us in this biz have come up against pressure at some point, to some degree or another, from those we review. Within the first year of my stint as critic at the South Florida Sun-Sentinel back in the 1980s, I had the odd experience of finding on my concert hall seat, and all other seats that night, a leaflet urging everyone to write the publisher and demand the removal of "this very young man" (I actually liked that part) who had dared come down from Washington, D.C., and tell people that the Fort Lauderdale Symphony and its conductor were not world-class. Later, I faced a delegation from that orchestra in the chief editor's office. He listened politely, told the visitors that I was hired to be a critic, not a publicist, and that was that. A few years ago, top management officials of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra came to The Sun to complain to a room full of editors about my allegedly biased coverage of financial and administrative problems at the BSO. The editors listened politely, asked some questions, expressed confidence in me and thanked them for coming. This is how it's supposed to be, not because of some rule that newspapers and critics are perfect or above reproach, but because this is what it means to have freedom of opinion, freedom of the press. When we're wrong, we issues corrections. When critics express their honest, reasoned viewpoints, we're doing our job.     

I can't blame the folks at the Cleveland Orchestra and their most ardent supporters if they felt threatened by Don's presence. After all, they've signed up Welser-Most through 2018, guaranteeing him a 16-year tenure, an astonishing vote of confidence for any music director these days, let alone someone who generates mixed reviews (except in certain repertoire and, especially, when on tour with the orchestra in Europe). The prospect of having a naysayer in the local press all those years must have seemed scary. Cleveland Orchestra executive director Gary Hanson just posted these comments on my original blog about the Rosenberg case: "In recent days, the music writers’ blogsphere has been rife with assumptions and even accusations that the management of The Cleveland Orchestra engineered personnel changes at Cleveland’s daily newspaper, The Plain Dealer.  These accusations are false.   

"I want to set the record straight: I was completely surprised by the news ... I have never met with [editors] to protest Donald Rosenberg’s opinions ...  I have delivered compliments and concerns about their news and feature coverage as well as their editorial positions and decisions.   But in every case I have also said, very explicitly, that the Orchestra’s management understands and respects the paper's and the critic’s role in expressing opinion about our artistic activities. And whether or not we agree with the opinion we fully accept and support their right and responsibility to publish it ..."

Meanwhile current editor Susan Goldberg has said only that it's "an internal personnel move."

I still think something is rotten somewhere. In the end, it may not matter too much who led the charge, who exerted influence, who gave in to pressure or doubt. The damage has been done. Zach Lewis, who has been told he will now cover the Cleveland Orchestra for the paper, is a good guy and good writer placed in an impossible situation. If he says positive things about Welser-Most, some people will think he's just doing that to keep his job. If he says negative things, some people will think he's under Don's influence and will have to be replaced, too. As I said before, the Cleveland Orchestra and the Plain Dealer are worse off, not better off, as a result of this controversy. Music and journalism have taken a painful hit.          

PHOTO: Cleveland Plain Dealer

Posted by Tim Smith at 1:34 PM | | Comments (8)


I just heard the news about Donald Rosenberg today (9/23/08) from a violinist friend who Emailed me. I don't recall having seen this story printed in The Cleveland Plain Dealer, which has shrunken embarassingly in both size and meaningful content recently (but costs more?!). *IF* something *FISHY* has happened, then it is a verrry darrrk daaay in Cleveland. The "integrity-(?!)-" of The Plain Dealer and its editor's decisions/actions is NOW HIGHLY QUESTIONABLE, which may have created an unfortunate/uncomfortable situation for The Cleveland Orchestra's management to have to address. Speculations will be tossed around, undoubtedly...I am verrry saddened and embarassed for Cleveland. Cleveland doesn't deserve this!

From today's (Wed., Sept. 24) blog about all things Cleveland on

Since posting my previous comments, I have read all that I could find in blogosphere...quite overwhelming! Whatever one's opinion of The Cleveland Orchestra and Donald Rosenberg may be, the real issue here is CENSORSHIP and the integrity of The Cleveland Plain Dealer. This whole mess seems to be the stuff that "60 Minutes"is made of...

Many thanks to Tim Smith and the Baltimore Sun for covering this story with the seriousness it deserves. Other people have now picked it up -- although not, so far as I know, the PD itself -- but it might have gone unremarked had it not been for your work.


Tim Page
Los Angeles

New York Times: very nice.

I haven't seen Zach's review of last night's concert yet. It wasn't in the paper today but most of the time they don't worry about meeting a tight deadline when there is no concert on Friday night.

But he did write a preview yesterday in which he referred to Rosenberg as "Former Plain Dealer Classical Music Critic Donald Rosenberg."

Hmm... I thought Don was still going to cover all classical music events except the Cleveland Orchestra.

Zach's first Cleveland Orchestra review was just posted a few minutes ago:

Cleveland Orchestra season begins with entrancing 'Duet,' lopsided Bruckner

Not to change the subject, BUT: does anyone have anything to say about former music/dance/restaurant critic Wilma "POISON PEN" Salisbury (Cleveland Magazine appropriately gave her that name in a major story with a cover photo)?...I'm STILL shakin' in my boots, and she's been gone for years! PLEASE DO SHARE.

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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